Across six episodes, Aaron Sorkin has been granted by HBO the opportunity to dim the lights on “The Newsroom.” Across the show’s two seasons, it managed the perverse balance of being highly watchable and totally infuriating at the same time. While Sorkin took to the state of the media with a barbed-wire-wrapped boxing glove, his characters and their relationships were clumsy and one-dimensional, for the most part. And he didn’t do himself many favors by often engaging in screwball comedic subplots, meant to offset the more sober moments, that wound up wholly out of place. But season three offered a chance for Sorkin to have laser-like focus, zero in on an arc that would only last a half-season, and knock it out of the park. And at least for the first two episodes, that’s what we saw.
The early third of season three introduced an inspired mainline plot involving a story brewing from stolen classified documents (giving a boost to the talents of the previously underutilized Dev Patel in his role as Neal), along with some exciting developments around previously thinly drawn characters such as Maggie (Alison Pill), and a texture of the contemporary climate in which social media and hard journalism collide and clash in the background. But from there it has been a steady roll down hill. The leaked documents mostly became an excuse to mythologize Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) as a hero of ethical and moral duty by not divulging the name of the source, Maggie and Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) reverted to their tedious unacknowledged romance, ACN was purchased by a character who is basically a clumsy mashup of Mark Zuckerberg and Ariana Huffington, and across the last three episodes the show has spiraled steadily downward. Clunky music montages wrapped up the last two episodes, Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) was killed off in another act of martyrdom for The Cause Of Journalism and, generally speaking, Sorkin has indulged his worst tendencies with reckless abandon. And then there’s “What Kind Of Day Has It Been,” the forehead-slappingly awful conclusion to “The Newsroom.”
But before it ends, we’ll be taken back to the beginning. With Charlie’s funeral and the reception that follows as the setting, Sorkin decides to show how far his characters have come by highlighting where they’ve started, with this episode utilizing a flashback device that rewinds all the way back to the events that took place before the pilot. And if you didn’t realize Sorkin has nothing more to say with “The Newsroom” other than beating a bloody fist against the wall for the fight to maintain journalistic standards, well, here you go. In these sequences we see a ratings and skirt chasing Will lazily hanging onto the number two spot by trotting out lowest common denominator reportage, and avoiding controversy at all costs. But Saint Charlie Skinner urges Will that he can do something better and more substantial, while also encouraging him to have a family (“being a father…it lives up to the hype”). This is pretty handy advice considering the episode starts off with MacKenzie (Emily Mortimer) telling Will she’s pregnant. Surprise!
Also in Flashback Land, we see Charlie cajole a dispirited MacKenzie, who is back home after being stabbed during a reporting stint in Fallujah, and is currently working through unemployment by bowling, drinking and wearing sweatpants. Long story short, Charlie convinces her to get out of a job she has lined up producing an afternoon talk show not unlike “The View,” to come work for him, and help turn “News Night” into something with value and meaning. MacKenzie is resistant not only because of the non-existent relationship she has with her ex Will, but also because she knows that doing the kind of quality program she envisions requires support from above. Charlie promises that support, sends her a symbolic copy of “Don Quixote,” and MacKenzie in turn rounds up her colleague Jim, who is currently reeling from the end of a long distance relationship, by sitting in an empty apartment jamming on his acoustic guitar. These are both details and skills that will come up later in the episode.
Anyway, Flashback MacKenzie jumps into her job, heading to the Brave New World talk at Northwestern University where you’ll recall that Will erupted in a rant after student Jennifer Johnson (who if you forgot is now Will’s assistant) asked him, “Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?” It turns out MacKenzie had an even bigger role in triggering his explosive reaction. She helped Jennifer get near the front of the line for the mic during the Q&A, which is how MacKenzie was able to write “It’s Not, But It Can Be” to flash at Will as the question was asked. So yes, MacKenzie was there and seemed to know from day one how to push the right buttons in Will to get him to become the personality we know now.
But what’s the current status of “News Night” with Charlie dead, and Lucas Pruit (BJ Novak) in charge? Nothing that a randomly inserted crisis can’t solve. It turns out Lucas has a major PR problem brewing involving women: at his birthday party hookers were apparently hired, and it has been revealed that female employees at his beverage company Kwench are paid less than men. The solution? After a lot of back and forth between Lucas and Leona (Jane Fonda), it turns out the hiring of MacKenzie in Charlie’s old job will solve a lot of problems. That’s right, MacKenzie has been promoted not because of her extensive qualifications, but because she can make a PR issue go away. After three seasons, with Sorkin continually under fire for the writing of his female characters, to take away MacKenzie’s agency in her career in the final episode is dismal. And that’s not the only place where that’ll happen in this episode.
On the way to the funeral reception Maggie gets called for an interview in Washington, D.C. for a field producer job, her dream gig. Again, it’s not because of her own excellent work, at least not directly. But rather because Jim was contacted and asked to recommend somebody, so he chose her. Sigh. Anyway, this allows for more mind-numbing exchanges between the two about the status of their relationship, why he recommended her for a job out of town after they just finally started dating again until they finally agree to maintain what they have long distance. But why will it work this time, when Jim’s previous long distance relationships haven’t? Because unlike the others, he’s in love with Maggie. AWWWWW.
And since we’re in the land of cloying sentimentality, let’s talk about what will go down as the worst moment during the entire run of “The Newsroom.” During the funeral reception, the now fatherly-because-he’s-expecting Will goes to talk with Charlie’s grandson Beau in his garage/jam space. In the flashbacks, Charlie had praised the kid for being something of a musical savant, and back in the present, the young man is trying to work through his feelings, asking Will if his grandfather felt any pain when he died. Will doesn’t have all the answers, but he does know how to play Tom T. Hall‘s “When I Got To Memphis,” which Flashback Charlie marveled at Beau for appreciating. And so what follows is a goddamn impromptu jam session, dripping with cheesy, melted, phoney sentimentality, as Will picks up the guitar, and Beau thumps the bass. Jim waltzes by and joins in on guitar, Gary jumps in on percussion, and soon it’s a good old fashioned hoedown, and it’s hide-under-the-blankets-cover-your-ears cringeworthy and even typing this out I can’t believe that scene happened. Anyway, once the song is over, Will offers to be someone to lean on for Beau in the future if he needs someone, and then you can go back to trying to erase of the memory of everything you just heard and saw.
As for the rest of the characters, here’s what we learn: Don (Thomas Sadoski) and Sloan (Olivia Munn) were always flirtatiously at odds with each other since day one because Sorkin seems to know no other manner in which to write male/female relationships. The pair also felt guilty about possibly being a factor in Charlie’s death, but his widow reveals that he never wanted to run the rape story Don resisted, gifting the producer with one of Charlie’s bow-ties. He passes it along to Sloan saying it was a gift for her, to help quell her anxiety about tearing apart that terrible ACN app on air, leading to Charlie’s apoplectic reaction.
And oh, Neal returns, coming in a blaze of glory to rebuild the website Bree (Joe Bass) has brought to ruin with listicles, the latest being the Most Overrated Movies of all time. And here Sorkin includes jabs at “Gravity” (“Listening to everyone rave about it beyond the score and visual effects was like overhearing an inside joke that only well respected movie critics were really in on”) and “The Descendants” (“The problem with ‘The Descendants’ is that it sucked”) for no real reason. In fact, including Bree’s dialogue sort of undermines that very message Sorkin is trying to send, as surely the digs at those well regarded movies will be more talked about than the integrity of gathering and disseminating important information that Neal aspires to do.
Anyway, the only good decision made by Sorkin in “What Kind of Day Has It Been” is to get out of his own way for the final moments. It’s a simple yet very effective sequence that shows the final minute before Will goes to air for the next broadcast of “News Night.” He silently prepares behind the news desk, we dip into the control room listening to the technicians and producers set everything up, there’s the buzz of the team on the floor gathering the latest stories (Nelson Mandela goes on life support) and then finally, the theme music kicks in, the show goes live, and Will greets his audience: “Good evening.”
It’s a moment of breath in a show that has, for three seasons, been largely hyperventilating. And it would have been one thing for “The Newsroom” to end as it began, flawed yet earnest, and (at its best) never less than engaging. But the finale does achieve the rare feat of managing to deliver one of the worst episodes of the series, one that doesn’t make you want to reconsider the show’s legacy, but simply give thanks that it’s finally over. [D]